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Dad’s Corner

By: Justin P. McCarthy  | April 18, 2024


In Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,[1] the sometimes iconoclastic, sometimes comforting Oliver Burkeman illuminates how humans engage with time and process the inescapable brevity of our lives. More extended philosophical monologue than self-help, the book brims with warmth and humor, and jams in enough poignant, incisive aphorisms to displace that dusty copy of Life’s Little Instruction Bookyou’ve had sitting on your coffee table (or, let’s be honest, hall toilet) since the turn of the century:[2]

“In the end, it's not the years in your life that count, it's the life in your years.”

“Don't let the fear of failure hold you back, time is too precious to waste on regrets.”

“The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.”

The man is a walking page-a-day calendar! You get the point. Burkeman’s core message–that it’s impossible to get everything done, inevitable (and, in fact, vital) to forgo doing the great majority of tasks, and integral to our happiness to do only those things which we find meaningful and important (plus the true necessaries for subsistence, health and family responsibility, etc.)--resonated deeply with me.

Those of us born in the United States can expect to have 4,000 weeks–or around 76 years–to live in the moment doing what’s important and ignoring everything else (or, if you’re like me, to spend a lot of time sorting out just how to go about doing so while drinking too much coffee and occasionally shouting expletives). You, your partner or your children could have more weeks, or fewer. Worldwide, life expectancy ranges from ~86 years in Hong Kong to a tragically curtailed ~54 in Chad.[3]

 At 44, I’ve lived 2,330 weeks, give or take. The odds that I likely have fewer ahead than behind have recently kindled a by-no-means unique midlife urgency in my own ongoing examination of how I’ve conducted my affairs, and how I might best do so throughout the steadily dwindling and unknown remainder of my life.[4]

I was born in New York, living there for 1,304 weeks before moving to California for the last 972. I spent 208 weeks in high school, and the same number in college. After college, I passed 104 selling camping gear in a New York suburb to escape Manhattan’s terrorists and anthrax attacks, before tossing 365 on the pyre of a thankless career helping companies sue one another and reading other people’s email. Katie and I spent 287 relatively unhurried weeks together before Jack’s arrival, and we’ve been married for 865 (go, us!), 746 of which I’ve spent as a stay-at-home parent–and, variously, an unpaid columnist, editor, student and serial volunteer.

In the span of my life so far, I’ve spent zero weeks writing full-time, zero getting paid to write and zero exploring my long-imagined side hustle of voice acting.[5] (Considering this, I’m more than proud of the scant week I’ve managed to put into learning to drive a powerboat.) The unshaded daylight of such blisteringly frank accounting leaves no space to hide behind my robust assortment of excuses:  “I’ll get to it,” or, “when the kids are older,” or, “once my health is a bit more dialed in.” There are no guarantees I’ll get to anything, that I–or the kids, for that matter–will get any older, that any of us will be healthier tomorrow or next year.

Shining this unsparing light toward the future has proved singularly motivating: we get 939 weeks with each child before they (hopefully) go to college. Of those, we have around 208 left with Jack, 313 with Ali and 417 with Claire. We’re (fingers crossed…sort of) more than halfway through the time we have at home with each of our kids. For every week that passes, we have one less left with them. Yes, this observation may be the trite-ist of truisms, but how often do you really allow yourself to feel it? What better way to appreciate every moment we have and to encourage ourselves to make the most of it than to acknowledge its finite irreplaceability among an ever-dwindling supply?

One unforeseen benefit of my new perspective is, well, perspective: when we’re going through something hard, like one child struggling with insomnia, another relentlessly lobbing a bracing litany of cranky, keen-edged tween unkindnesses at any family member in range, or another betraying our trust-based system and sneaking hours of extra screen time, we know that these challenges are finite, too. We might spend eight of those 939 weeks helping someone remember how to sleep, or 20 coaching our verbal pugilist to rediscover her inner non-combatant, but these labors, too, will pass. Knowing that you’re in a moment you’ll never get back with your child can help you appreciate even the most heartrendingly difficult among them (moments, I mean, but, I guess, kids, too).

Katie and I will be 52 when Claire leaves for college (fingers still crossed), at which point we’ll have around 1,252 weeks left as empty nesters, just 730 of which we’ll pass as full-fledged retirees, should she continue working through the current median retirement age of 62. The closer we get, the less intention we have of putting off doing anything we’d like to do before we join the choir invisible. Why instrumentalize the time we have now in service of some theoretical unfettered future endgame which–if we’re lucky–we’ll get to play for the final 18% of our lives?

Determined to live in this moment as often as I’m able to for the rest of my life (can you tell this book has had an IMPACT?) and admitting my generational talents for procrastination and self-distraction, I hired an accountability partner two months ago to help me shake off my lingering double-COVID-19-year funk. I now check in with Coach Micah from GoalsWon at least once a day. We have me sticking to my diet (I’m down 12 lbs since January!), meditating every morning, reading every night, exercising every day, and–miracle of previously thought unachievable miracles–going to sleep at or before 11:30 every school night.

I’m biking again regularly for the first time since I hurt my back five years ago. We’ve already increased my VO2 max by a point and it’s heading up (I dropped five points last year, thanks to the virus). In April, we’re adding a modest weekly writing goal, and we’ll keep building from there.

Knowing what I want to do and being deliberate in doing it helps me stay focused, and when I’m not being “productive” I’ve stopped feeling guilty for playing the occasional hour or three of Super Mario Bros. Wonder with the kids, rewatching Parks and Recreation with Kaite, sitting with the dog for half an hour or standing on the deck in the rain eating chocolate. There may be no time to waste, but there’s so much to appreciate.

[1] By far the best advice I can give you is, stop wasting your time reading this essay and go buy the book. Or listen to it: the author himself reads the Audible version, in crisp Received Pronunciation resembling Tim Harford’s narration of his superlative Cautionary Tales podcast.

[2] Yes, we’re calling it that now, and it’s already almost a quarter over. Just let that marinate!

[3]An effective altruist could do a lot worse in finding utility-optimized destinations for philanthropic largesse than to run an ascending sort on life expectancy worldwide and direct aid to the nations at the bottom. (Spoiler alert: they’re all in Africa.)

[4] If this sounds depressing, it’s likely because you’re being a bit less than honest with yourself. One of Burkeman’s excruciating observations is that many of us go to great lengths to deny both the certainty of our finitude and the uncertainty of when we might die.

[5] An industry which, like me, is newly confronting its own ticking clock.

Justin P. McCarthy lives in Tiburon with his wife, Katie, and their three children--Jack, Ali, and Claire. He’d be delighted to hear from you at
More from this issue:

A Letter to Zoey HERE >> 

Fostering Interconnection Through Therapy HERE >> 

SMMC Nonprofit Partner Spotlight: Marin Foster Care Association HERE >> 

Staying Organized Amidst the Chaos HERE >> 

Take Heart! HERE >>